The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 30, 2002

A journalistic escape into fiction that does not jell
Aruti Nayar

An Escape into Silence
by Bhaskar Roy, New Century Publications, Delhi, Pages 324,
Rs. 395

An Escape into SilenceAN Escape into Silence certainly does not offer an escape for the reader. The novel requires engagement and involvement to ensure the participation of the readers who can not afford to suspend either rationality or lose themselves in the flow of the story.

The book can be read at many levels. At one level, it is the story of Bappa, a sensitive poet who grapples with the relevance of poetry, even if it is poetry that is polemical, to give meaning and order to life, especially in a world that is violent and blood-soaked. Almost as if to match the complexity of his narrative with the twists and turns in the life of the poet-protagonist, students' union leader and communist party worker, Bhaskar Roy constructs a taut, well-researched narrative. It is as multi-layered and intricately woven as it is replete with verbose explanations and subplots that run alongside the main narrative.

Through the protagonist's life journey—external as well as internal—is unravelled the wheels-within-wheels machinations of the ruling political party and the history of the Naxalites Movement. The writer also weaves in an account of the dying rivers in the land that stretches from Calcutta to the border town of Bongaon along with myths and legends that local people keep alive through rituals. Also dealt with authenticity are the visible and invisible effects of the Partition of Bengal. The setting is the post-Emergency Calcutta.


The son of an affluent CA, Bikramaditya Roy Chowdhury whose two gurus were Stalin and Pramod Dasgupta and who hates the revisionism of Jyoti Basu, Bappa hero worships Jibananda Das, a poet, and Che Guevara, the restless Argentinean radical. He can, however, not relate to the feudal world of his father and finds solace in the pallav of his literature-loving mother, Nilima. The writer tries to weave many characters, issues and themes in single, linear strand.

Whether it is the using of volatile, easily excitable and, at the same time, very vulnerable students by wily politicians and behind-the-scenes backroom boys who are such a contrast to the public face of the political party or the hollowness of the rebellion of iconoclasts like Sucheta Dasgupta who are trapped by their own ideologies and rebellion for the sake of rebellion, Roy builds up the plot assiduously.

In forging a symbiotic relationship with Sucheta, the much older teacher-critic, who has always lived by her own code of conduct, Bappa finds an escape from the insidiousness of political crosscurrents and the dissonance of the lifestyle of his upper class household. Only the asylum is as hollow as the edifice and lifestyle that he is fleeing from. Bappa is bound only with ties of blood with his father and the more successful elder brother.

Through constant references to Rabindra Sangeet, Satyajit Ray, poetry of Sunil Gangopadhaya, The Statesman and the Ananda Bazaar Patrika, Ganashakti, Little Magazines or the reconstruction of the Naxalites and their motivations (especially Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal), Roy’s descriptive style captures the whiff of Bengali culture and life. At times, at the risk of seeming parochial, the story can be quite cerebrally engaging. However, if one is looking for creativity of expression and an emotionally rewarding experience and not cerebral stimulation alone, it fails to deliver

While describing the motives of veteran communist worker Bachchu Sen in using Bappa for political ends, he writes: "He and that boy were complimentary to each other. Bappa, the public face, and he, the real boss behind. The boy had everything that was required to rise in the party. In this party of the underprivileged, he brought in a whiff of elitist flavour, an important lineage. The Roy Chowdhurys were a name to reckon with in the refugee belt. It was not just money, a businessman might get rich overnight. But the rare family thing—the old aristocracy speaking for the have-nots, standing for them—would always appeal to popular imagination. It was natural for the son of a jute-mill worker to voice the concerns of his class, join the Federation. There was no dearth of such workers in their party. But such faces would not arouse curiosity, excite an audience. So what, what's the big deal, a factory worker's son standing up for his class?… A handsome boy from an old feudal family, walking side by side with farm labourers would be an instant hit". And, ironically, it is his lineage that comes to Bappa's help when his fellow comrades get him into trouble. The writer is at his best while describing the intricate workings of the layered structure of the political party and exposing the yawning gap between the Marxist party's private scheming and the public face or the face for public consumption.

Most such descriptions serve a dual purpose: thy expose the hypocritical attitude of a cadre-based party's rank as well as carry forward the narrative by showing the players behind the action as cogs in the political wheel. Roy spares no one. In a similar ironic twist, a dig is taken at the intellectuals through the portrayal of Sucheta Dasgupta who has hijacked the cause of "poor tribals." They do not even know that she goes to the USA to focus on their problems. How such activists and intellectuals are serving their own ends is obvious.

As the reader meanders through the narrative what brings in a measure of relief to the stark, prosaic and too longwinded a narrative is the softness of touch displayed in etching the relationship between Bappa and Mrittika. The deft strokes that Roy displays and the minimalism that allows the reader to dream and imagine proves that less is always more when it comes to drawing a pen-portrait. To the writer's credit, he does try to do justice to others in Bappa's group. Suchi, Tuhin, Tarun, Niyoti and even Keya, who ditches Bappa for a more comfortable life, are etched out as cameos. They, however, threaten to swamp the main narrative. In fact, one wishes the reader did not have to keep track of so many names. This hampers interest and after a while even becomes tedious.

Despite an ease of style and a matching of form, content and research, An Escape into Silence does not touch the reader's heart or draw one into the narrative. It is too descriptive, has too many details and is peopled by too many characters. One wonders if the beauty and simplicity of the relationship between Bappa and Mrittika, in whom he finds solace and resolution of a conflict-ridden life (she is so much like his mother), could not have been fleshed out a wee bit more. Roy is sure-footed when it comes to reportage but fumbles while dealing with finely-nuanced emotional subtleties. What occurs to you as you read the packed-with-words story is that the title is certainly a misnomer because silence is hardly present either in the imagery or as a leit motif in An Escape into Silence. At the end, it is the reader who yearns to escape into silence.